[18 August 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Some authors take a unique approach to getting their books into the hands of a potential readership. In the case of British author David Moody, it was publishing books in PDF format and giving them away for free online. While it’s hard to imagine that such a tactic worked, it did, and Moody has found himself with both a publishing contract and a movie deal with director Guillermo del Toro of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, who snapped up the rights to Moody’s horror novel Hater.
Hater is the first book in a proposed trilogy, of which the new Dog Blood is the second volume. You don’t actually have to have read Hater to dive into Dog Blood, because Moody aptly sets up the scenario within the first few pages. Essentially, Dog Blood is a quasi-zombie apocalyptic horror novel where the world has been splintered into two factions at war with each other: the Haters and the Unchanged.
Haters are essentially a group of zombie-like people who suddenly woke up one day with the urge to kill otherwise ordinary human beings in brutal and visceral ways, over and over again. The Unchanged, naturally, are normal people who are just trying to survive in a world where the other half wants to pulverize them and leave their disemboweled corpses in the street.
In Moody’s world, science cannot explain why half the world suddenly has turned into ruthless killers, but this is actually a strong point of the Hater universe. There’s an intense metaphor here about the ruthlessness of modern culture where stress and a non-existent sense of community is causing people to snap, whether it’s through incidents of road rage or workplace/school spree killings or other forms of assault. In Dog Blood, Moody has created a world that is well past the brink of collapse; the Unchanged are living like refugees in tent cities where food and water are the common currency.
The novel starts with a bang as a group of Unchanged do a reconnaissance mission in Hater territory where some of their own are holed up in an office building. Moody aptly treats the reader as though he or she is a passenger in a car where they’ve been handcuffed to the door. The car is driven by a homicidal maniac who is putting the pedal to the metal and is aiming the car for a large cliff—and there’s a bomb ticking away in the back seat. You can practically see the pulp oozing from in the pages of the opening chapter, and it makes for a rip roaring start.
Things slow down a bit though, once we’re introduced to Danny McCoyne, who became a Hater in the preceding volume. It’s hard to really warm up to Danny, for the set-up to his character in Dog Blood involves him mercilessly putting a hatchet into the head of an Unchanged woman who happens to be in the same room as her dead child. Despite being an unsympathetic character, at least at first, the novel is more or less told through his eyes as he goes about on a personal mission.
In Hater, Danny comes to realize that his five-year-old daughter Ellis is just like him. However, Danny’s wife has stolen away his children due to his transformation, so he naturally wants to find out where his family went and recover this one missing Hater offspring so that she can fight alongside him in the war against the Unchanged (apparently, the Haters can feel love or… something). Danny’s plight, however, is at odds with the rest of the Hater population which is being rallied by a general who wants to group the killers all together so they can make the ultimate attack on the Unchanged. This push-and-pull between Danny’s personal quest and the goals of the Haters is at the heart of the novel, and makes Danny’s intentions a bit quixotic.
Dog Blood speaks volumes about the age of terrorism in which we live, as the Haters pretty much look and act like regular human beings, except when they catch the scent of an Unchanged person and quickly mobilize to lunge at their victim’s throat. If not for such overly aggressive tendencies, anyone can be a Hater, which fuels a bit of paranoia among the Unchanged. Soldiers rule the society of the latter, and if you bother to argue with members of the military as they go about their business, particularly as they deal with overcrowding in Unchanged refugee camps, they might peg you as a Hater and promptly put a bullet in your head.
In Dog Blood, Moody has written an engaging social critique of how the world has pretty much gone to hell in a hand basket with the current locked down mentality of governments determined to guard their borders. This is revealed as some Haters have learned how to suppress their violent tendencies so that they can sneak into Unchanged territory and form pseudo-terrorist cells, then attack the unsuspecting Unchanged from withing. Thusm Dog Blood is a horror novel with a little more substance and sub-text than just the usual churning out the prerequisite gore and bloody sinew – although it has plenty of that on offer. For those who may need a bit more illustration, it include a topically transparent scene of an airplane smashing into an office building, forcing the Unchanged on the upper floors to jump to their deaths rather than burn in the flames.
Dog Blood is a quick read, despite some lulls in the first half of the book. Indeed, it’s a pulse-pounding, spine-tingling page turner in the tradition of Stephen King. (In a referential bit, one Hater even wonders near the start of the novel if King is actually working on their side.) Del Toro was particularly astute to pick up the film rights to this series, because the book reads like a movie playing out on the printed page. It’s a highly cinematic book chock full of killings that will satisfy fans of blood and guts and, once it gets going, it offers almost non-stop action and thrills.
At the outset characters that you think might play a vital role later on sometimes wind up getting decimated or are introduced as being “Brutes”, who are Haters that are so wound-up and gung ho about killing that even other Haters have to keep them chained up to prevent them from spiraling out of control. (These Brutes, however, don’t play a large part in the narrative, which probably means they’ll have a much bigger role to play in the third book.)
That said, Dog Blood is an imperfect book on a number of fronts and suffers from some real logic loop whoppers. For one, we’re led to believe that Hater children are prized, as they have fewer scruples when it comes to fighting. Imagine a five-year-old child going head to head with a fully grown adult, despite the fact that the Unchanged adults are more or less scouring for any food they can get their hands on and are often fighting while weakened by hunger. It would have been better if Moody had simply portrayed the youngsters as scavengers picking off the Unchanged once they have been left for dead, instead of being full-bore mini-fighters that are a force to be reckoned with.
Point two is that the Haters, despite being compared to zombies early on in the book, are sentient creatures that are able to hold a conversation and seem to possess at least a little bit of rational thought. While this adds to the aforementioned subtext that the enemy could be one of us, would it not dawn on the Haters at some point that once they have rid the world of the Unchanged, they will probably have no other option but to turn and wallop the bejeezus out of each other?
Thirdly, as the novel is largely told from the point-of-view of the Haters, the narrative can get, well, a little boring at times, especially in the first half of the book. Imagine a George A. Romero zombie flick told from the point-of-view of the zombies. It wouldn’t work, because we would have to empathize with the antagonists, which would make them seem a little less terrifying. Such is the case with Dog Blood which, despite their penchant for ultra-violence, makes the Haters seem all too relatable.
Most controversial of all, though, is that Moody draws a line between the Haters and the victims of the Holocaust. Haters captured by the Unchanged are sent to gas chambers and slaughterhouses, and a group of Unchanged, in one early scene of the novel, go through a pile of dead Haters in order to scour the bodies for any valuables that can be pocketed. Moody tries to make a point that human nature is such that if we were forced into an untenable situation we would repeat the mistakes of the past, no matter which side of the conflict we were on. However, aligning a group of vicious, homicidal beasts who want to do little more than turn your brains into beef stew with the plight of the Jewish people during World War II seems a bit misguided, if not offensive. (The allegory also is seemingly meant to elicit sympathy for the Haters, which goes back to the point about the weakness of making the anti-heroes the protagonists of a horror novel.)
It might have worked better if the Haters were a little more like the Nazis and they were the ones sending the Unchanged into concentration camps. That the Haters are simply misunderstood and are meant to be sympathy-inducing victims of the war is something of a stretch – they are mass murderers, after all.
It can be said that the middle book of a series is usually the weakest as it doesn’t really have a beginning or an end. However, Moody has written a book that is self-contained and stands well on its own, despite the obvious set up for a sequel in the final pages. So long as you don’t think about it too much, Dog Blood is a roller-coaster ride of a read, one that will leave you eagerly awaiting for the continuation of the story.